par-a-noi-a n. 1. a mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions ... ascribed to the supposed hostility of others. 2. a baseless or excessive suspicion of the motives of others ... Gk. paránoia madness.
And with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise releasing their own big-budget meditation on paranoia in Minority Report, it’s a fine time to ponder Philip K. Dick, the late pulp-fiction Kafka on whose writing the film is based. Or is it Dick’s life that the film is based on? Dick didn’t just write hundreds of short stories and dozens of novels about paranoia, he lived in that state of fear and insecurity. Take his correspondence with the FBI.
On Oct. 28, 1972, in Fullerton, Calif., 16 years after publishing the short story “Minority Report” in Fantastic Universe magazine, the self-described “well-known author of science fiction novels” typed a letter to the bureau: “... several months ago I was approached by an individual who I have reason to believe belonged to a covert organization involving politics, illegal weapons, etc., who put great pressure on me to place coded information in future novels ‘to be read by the right people here and there,’ as he phrased it. I refused.”
In a second letter, Dick implicated groups from neo-Nazis to the Black Panthers in a 1971 burglary of his home that he stated was “political in nature.” In a postscript he related that “Sergeant Keaton of the Tiberon Police Dept., Marin County … advised me informally that I ‘ought to get out of Marin County for good,’ or I’d very likely get a bullet in my back some night. Or worse.”
According to a declassified FBI document dictated on Nov. 21, 1972, an agent visited and interviewed Philip Kindred Dick and determined that allegations were based on “presumption only on his part” and lacked “basis or substantiation.”
The CIA had already intercepted the author’s correspondence to a Russian physicist in 1957; 15 years later, the result of his letters was further suspicion of Dick himself. In a memo dated Feb. 21, 1968, “Philip K. Dick” was counted among hundreds of alphabetized names (somewhere between other well-known literary figures such as Robert Bly and Allen Ginsberg) listed in the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, which the bureau’s New York office forwarded to the Washington, D.C., headquarters. His estranged wife of the time (he was married five times), Nancy, already feared bureau surveillance for contributing to the defense fund of the imprisoned militant black activist Angela Davis. Even the seemingly innocuous Department of Health, Education and Welfare planned to include him in a bibliography of drug-related science fiction. As someone once said, “It’s not paranoia if someone’s actually out to get you.”
Paranoia in literature seems to have risen from the oppressive and murky depths of the Dark Ages’ theocracy as a shadowy parasite within the nascent humanism of the Renaissance. Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, is a tragedy of schemed delusions and supposed mortal wrongs inevitably progressing to a bloody body count greater and more pitiful than in most of Dick’s fictions.
Edgar Allan Poe (as habitual an alcoholic and drug addict as Dick was at times) democratized paranoia in the 19th century, bringing the horrors of its Pandora’s box from the privileged courts down into the homes of more common folk. In one of Poe’s lesser-known tales, “The Black Cat,” the antihero mutilates and kills the titular house pet, then murders his hapless wife in his alcohol-fueled madness.
Where pre-20th century paranoid literature was a cottage industry, the traumatic aftermath of modern warfare may have mass-produced it. The hard-boiled fiction triumvirate of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) cranked out well-crafted, ironic adventures of lethal absurdities predominately populated by a metaphorically cannibalistic and damaged demimonde of antiheroes and femme fatales. In their worlds, paranoia becomes an oxymoron: a prophylactic disease that allows at least the possibility of surviving the mostly masked malicious intent of others. This was no small part of the literary world into which Dick was born on Dec. 16, 1928, the son of a Department of Agriculture employee who would soon abandon his family and eventually become the voice of the Los Angeles radio show “This is Your Government.”
But Dick gravitated toward science fiction (not crime) pulp. He typed his first novel at the precocious age of 14 and was first published at 23. Four years later, in 1955, his Solar Lottery sold 300,000 copies. Though his first editor, Don Wollheim, often altered his manuscripts by bolting on heavy-handed futuristic conventions such as extraterrestrial settings, flying cars and laser weapons, science fiction allowed Dick the freedom to take literary paranoia to its logical extremity. He created worlds where not only others were graphically suspect, but also one’s own senses, one’s mind, time and space — and, ultimately, God.
Film would seem the ideal medium for Dick’s ideas. Cinema is a false universe where time and space are plastic, invented and fabricated by us lesser gods. Paranoia adheres well to celluloid (proven in the oeuvres of Hitchcock and film noir). But, ironically, the disjointed trilogy of more-or-less major American releases more or less based on Dick’s stories so far — Blade Runner (1982, the year of Dick’s death, from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (1990, inspired by “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) and Screamers (1995, from Second Variety) — are lacking either as films or in truly Dicksian qualities. Based on its trailers, Minority Report promises a typical Spielberg-Cruise thrill ride that will shrink the Dicksian themes to rudiments (like the leg bones within the flippers of deep-sea whales).
The short story “Minority Report” opens with our antihero, Precrime Commissioner John A. Anderton, realizing that he’s getting “bald and fat and old” and suspecting that an ambitious scheme to usurp his position lies behind the “blond, overly confident face” and bright blue eyes of his newly appointed young assistant, Witwer.
Witwer already understands the concept of precrime: Three mutants, whose precognitive abilities to see future timelines have so consumed the functions of their entire brains that they are left mentally disabled and physically grotesquely immature, are virtually imprisoned within the heart of the Precrime Bureau. Machinery supports their biological functions, captures their drooling babble of things yet to be, and extrapolates future crimes and their perpetrators.
“So the commission of the crime is absolute metaphysics,” Anderton explains. “We claim they’re culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they’re innocent.” And, in a sense, they are “innocent.” If Anderton has faith in one thing, it’s the precrime system — until the computers charge him with the murder of a man he’s never met.
An early work (1956), “Minority Report” only hints at what became one of Dick’s long-standing leitmotifs: a simulacrum of counterfeit beings, realities and gods where all is suspect. But in a post-Sept. 11 America, where civil liberties seem to be on the far left of a continuum that finds its opposite pole in National Security on the far right, where John Ashcroft and “enemy combatants” have become household words, and Rabih Haddad, a Muslim cleric from Ann Arbor, has been held in solitary confinement without formal charges, perhaps this fable of civic security written in the McCarthy era, almost a half-century ago, is actually a prologue.E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org